The Pain Disorder That Saved My Life

Thursday, February 02, 2017 by Meg   •   Filed under Anxiety

Pain and depression can go hand-in-hand because of the way brain chemicals like serotonin affect both of those conditions (more on depression here). But did you know anxiety can follow similar patterns? So much overlap. Neurotransmitters are kinda jerky like that. Some people even experience panic attacks related to food sensitivities

And sometimes we stumble upon these relationships by accident. Today I have a guest post from a lovely woman who found out just how closely linked pain and anxiety can be.

By: Heather Holter 

Just over a year ago I began to experience some pain symptoms that had no rhyme or reason. Sometimes I had knee and ankle pain, sometimes it was general fatigue. Sometimes my wrists were very weak. The pain had no pattern. It moved around. It struck at night, or halfway through the morning. The only constant was that it made me nuts. The doctors did a lot of tests, but could find no cause. Frustrating is an understatement--I felt closer to hopeless, especially because my doctor seemed to think my symptoms were psychosomatic; the result of my anxiety.

Although I believed whole-heartedly that I had some sort of pain disorder I wondered in the back of my mind, “Is he right? Am I just crazy?” Why else could they never find anything wrong with me?

I did have a history of mental health diagnoses. At the age of twenty-four, I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety and Stress-Induced Anxiety with OCD components. I tried a few prescriptions, but the drugs made me tired, and I didn’t have much range of emotion while on them. I was mostly in a haze, going through life not feeling much of anything. I hated not being able to feel. So I opted for an as-needed anxiety drug, which I rarely took, and ultimately discontinued all my daily medications. I wanted to deal with my anxiety on my own. I also had a few biases, though I didn’t understand them as such at the time.

  • I felt like it was wrong to take prescriptions for anything not life threatening.
  • I felt like as long as I could complete all my responsibilities I didn’t need medications.
  • I felt ashamed that I couldn’t just “get over it” or “stop worrying” and felt like I was to blame.
  • I felt like I was a failure because I couldn’t just “be happy” and “act normal.”
  • I thought that if I could not fix myself that indicated weakness.

But I was miserable. I was pessimistic and irritable most of the time. I had racing thoughts about everything I had to do: I worried about the kids, I worried about money, and I struggled with many other irrational thoughts whenever I had idle time. I kept myself busy all hours of the day doing nonsense that doesn’t really matter. I was never really…happy. The best way to describe it is like having a constant overwhelming feeling of dread, just waiting for the next bad thing to happen.

I tried to be proactive. I grabbed onto the things I could control with both hands and didn’t let go.

I cleaned my kid’s rooms at midnight. I’d spend HOURS searching for missing socks or a toy. I made lists to plan for the following days or weeks, anything to stay in “control.” I wasted so much time and energy being mad, but I couldn’t stop acting irrationally. And I wasn’t the only one feeling miserable—everyone in my house was feeling my stress in one way or another. I screamed and yelled about any item out of place. I felt like the enemy of the house.

But I didn’t know what to do about it. My bias against medication was strong and I still wasn’t ready to admit failure (silly, I know). I really thought that if I couldn’t talk myself out of it that I was too weak to deal with life—I had to be able to fix this, right? Other people did it all the time! And though I knew I had anxiety, I wasn’t ready to head to the doctor for a new batch of pills that might make me feel less than myself, even if “myself” was irrational and erratic. 

Then my physical pain intensified and I started having a bunch of new crazy symptoms. I had severe back and neck pain, touch-sensitive spots that moved around, trouble sleeping, terrible headaches that caused nausea, fatigue and weakness, and shaky hands. Miserable, I finally broke down. I made an appointment.

And it changed my life.

This time, the doctor didn’t tell me my agony was all in my head—she prescribed a drug for neurological chronic pain disorders, and the symptoms began to dwindle. I was no longer getting headaches, the shaking disappeared, the neck and back pain lessened, and the touch sensitivity was greatly reduced. But there was an unexpected side effect: my anxiety symptoms improved too.

My racing thoughts subsided. I stopped my midnight cleaning sessions. I ignored missing toys. The dread that had been following me around decided to take a hike. My husband told me I seemed calm and happy. The kids said I was never mad anymore and I yelled less frequently. Even when things went awry, I still felt at peace. I never knew that kind of happiness existed, a pure unadulterated joy, and had certainly never experienced it—I really thought those perky people on the street were just being fake.

Within a month, I was a better version of myself. I felt all the same emotions as before, just not to the same extreme, and the worry and dread just disappeared. I still get mad, but not to the point of losing my shit on everyone. Today, I stay on my medications, not only for the pain, but because of the improvements in my mood. Though I still have some bad pain days, these medications gave me my life back.

My chronic pain disorder caused me, inadvertently, to get help for my anxiety. I feel like I have been given a second chance and a new opportunity to live my life, happy and healthy. If I had it to do over, I would not let biases or shame or fear hold me back. I honestly wish I had sought help before I turned forty--just imagine how much fuller my twenties and thirties would have been if I had! However, I have no regrets. People do what they know. Now I know better. I’ve grown through this experience. I can see things far more clearly now, looking back from the other side. Maybe the biggest lesson I’ve gleaned is that I deserve happiness.

And so do you. 

Heather Holter is a work-at-home mother of five school aged kids age 8-14, and wife of twenty years to her high school sweetheart. She loves to read, write, travel, and spend time with family. You can read about the adventures and mishaps that occur in her crazy busy family life on her blog titled Maxed-Out Minivan. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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